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A policy-driven White House


One further comment on the various Rahm Emanuel stories floating around town lately: They're notable in that they're about Emanuel's performance, rather than schisms in the White House. The stories are arguing that Barack Obama should be listening more to Rahm Emanuel, but they're not saying that he's instead listening to David Axelrod, or Valerie Jarrett, or Robert Gibbs.

In fact, what appears to be happening is that Barack Obama is listening to his policy people. He didn't scale back the health-care reform bill because they convinced him that the different pieces didn't work on their own. He's trying to close Guantanamo because a lot of people who work on this stuff think we should close Guantanamo. That's the thing about electing a smart technocrat as president: He's swayed by smart, technocratic arguments. The political people are being used to help sell and shepherd the policy, and to figure out how much of the policy can pass Congress, but they seem to be losing the major arguments over what that policy should be.

The obvious counterargument here is the stimulus debate, but as Michael Tomasky has noted, the limits on the size of the stimulus appears to have come from the House of Representatives (and then, later in the process, from the Senate). Maybe Rahm and the White House didn't do enough to break through those limits, but they also thought the recession would be a lot milder than it actually was, and so didn't act with quite the urgency that better information might have furnished.

But either way, I'd say that the White House's agenda has been a lot closer to what its policy experts advised than what its political team counseled. And that's a good thing.

Photo credit: By Pete Souza/White House Photo

By Ezra Klein  |  March 2, 2010; 11:08 AM ET
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Hey Ezra,
I know I've written to you about this before, but now MY has addressed it:

Why isn't Maryland talked about more in terms of HCR? It is amazing that no one (until MY today) focuses on this.

Posted by: AZProgressive | March 2, 2010 11:25 AM | Report abuse

How can the president turn policy into an effective message to the country? Maybe only results down the road will win people over, but it seems there should be a constituency for putting issues first, since that is what people say they want. The perception gap between the president's thoughtful, centrist policies and the caricature of him as a big-government liberal begs for better messaging. The growing political center seems to want a leader just like Obama, but don't seem to give him credit for being that leader.

Posted by: jduptonma | March 2, 2010 11:27 AM | Report abuse

Sorry Ezra but listening to Rahm is the problem. Rahm and Summers cut Romer's proposal from $1.2 trillion to $900b. We know that. Likely for the same reason that the health care bill is too small at $900b, saying a trillion polls poorly or some such rot. Ackerman explains how Rahm screwed up the Guantanamo closing. Rahm is likely the impetus of the Gang of Six and killing the public option, the popular part of HCR.

Obama has ignored the policy people in favor of Rahm and thats how we got so screwed up.

Posted by: endaround | March 2, 2010 11:31 AM | Report abuse

The primary problem with this administration has been the lack of attention to the policy side. For over a year, the administration refused to articulate any specific policy goals for helathcare reform, instead taking the position that it would endorse whatever came out of Congress. This reflected a political goal -- the administration wanted to be able to say that it had passed healthcare reform, and it didn't particularly care what that reform actually consisted of.

The stimulus was similar. The administration's political goal was to be able to say that it had passed a stimulus, and it didn't particularly care what size it was or what was in it. Congress ran with the opportunity to stuff the bill with pork projects, a big chunk of which won't see daylight until several years down the road, long after the need for stimulus will likely have passed.

Posted by: tomtildrum | March 2, 2010 11:54 AM | Report abuse

do you think there are enough men in this picture?

Posted by: FloridaChick | March 2, 2010 11:58 AM | Report abuse

I kinda have a problem with Ezra's points on Rahm (who I approve of, btw). I think he is treating this very idealistically, where policy should be elevated over politics entirely. But that world doesn't exist at all. Bill Clinton achieved a tremendous amount in his time in office, but so much was politically driven. In fact, the conventional wisdom now is he should have been more politically driven - get welfare reform done first, then nab health care. I think you need to balance political realities with policy aims. If this were just about listening to policy guys, as Ezra suggests, I feel as if we would have a much different bill. Perhaps Wyden-Bennett (doesn't David Cutler like the idea, Ezra? I'm not sure). Perhaps we would have something that was more radical - as Ezra constantly and rightly notes, this is not a radical bill. And on another issue, stimulus, we would have had a larger bill; everyone knows it was pared down because people thought certain numbers ($800 bn, $1 trillion, etc.) were too shocking.

On another issue, fiscal policy: I wonder if Ezra would agree with the statement that "the budget is a political document." Students who take courses on budgeting are well acquainted with it, and it shows up in various academic articles (just to take one: Again, politics matters.

Now, I respect Ezra enough to think he knows all of this. And maybe I am not reading him closely enough. But it just seems as if there is an overemphasis on policy, which is good in the abstract but doesn't work in policy. And to think that Obama is listening to his policy people more, I am skeptical. Sure, they play a role, and my sense is that Obama is a guy who wants to know what the best policy is. But once that is determined, it is filtered through the political aides like Ax and Rahm, leading to things like a stimulus that was too small for some, a health care bill too conservative for some, and a foreign policy too Bush-lite for some.

Posted by: gocowboys | March 2, 2010 12:01 PM | Report abuse

Sorry, correction: I meant to say "an overemphasis on policy, which is good in the abstract but doesn't work in practice." Oy, I gotta stop multitasking, my writing would be much clearer!

Posted by: gocowboys | March 2, 2010 12:04 PM | Report abuse

"Perhaps we would have something that was more radical"

I really doubt that we would ever have been able to achieve any reform more radical than what is currently being attempted.

To institute any plan as radical as Wyden you would need total commitment from both conservative and liberal dems, incredible public support OR some bipartisan cover from republicans (and we have seen how that has played out!) I dont see how a more radical plan would help to get any of those.

The current policy is wisely both comprehensive and centrist - if it passes it will slowly begin to reform healthcare and will prove to Americans (and politicians!) that HCR is NOT the end of the world (as republicans have portrayed it) and can actually make HC better. That might be hard for the R's to explain - if the average voter did not have such a short attention span!

Posted by: lazza11 | March 2, 2010 12:16 PM | Report abuse


That's my point exactly. This isn't just about listening to the policy people. The reason you get "both comprehensive and centrist" is because there are political aides with significant influence. That's why I am disagreeing w/ Ezra.

Posted by: gocowboys | March 2, 2010 12:18 PM | Report abuse

gocowboys - point taken... I would wholeheartedly agree then : )

I think Ezra is right that Obama's white house is driven by the policies that it wants to see enacted, but they are very political and pragmatic in the execution - they will ALWAYS take a significantly compromised bill if they think that it will pass over a better bill that they judge will not. In that respect you are right - it would be ridiculous to suggest they ignore the politicians to a significant extent in this WH.

Posted by: lazza11 | March 2, 2010 12:41 PM | Report abuse

I guess I still have a hard time strictly delineating between policy and politics (and "process" and the Republican definition of "philosophy" probably fit in there too). If I think of policy as, as you say, "technocratic" and politics as more of a communications strategy, I get a little closer to making the distinctions. But honestly, I'd be surprised if the WH--and Obama, in particular--can separate the two in significantly meaningful ways. They may think they do since they have discrete policy and political teams, but it seems to me that whenever they strategize about policy, they always filter it through political terms (whether or not they think they can get it, how it would look if they did get it, etc). You don't get as good at politics as Obama is without engaging in it regularly on an unconscious level.

I'd be interested to see, almost as a thought experiment, what Obama's economic "policy" team would come up with if they were assigned to get us to full employment by...say...August 1st...without considering the politics of the endeavor. Not that I think they can or even necessarily should resolve unemployment that quickly (given the complexities of our bizarre and haphazardly constructed economic system), but being given such an extraordinary task would invariably compel them to push aside their deeply ingrained political instincts in favor of the purely practical problem in front of them. Of course, even if the policy team were ever engaged in such a task, the WH's political arm would definitely keep me from ever seeing it. I'm sure there's some irony in there somewhere.

Posted by: slag | March 2, 2010 12:54 PM | Report abuse

Well said, Ezra. Well said. You are like an oasis in a real madness.

Posted by: impikk | March 2, 2010 3:27 PM | Report abuse

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